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The Library of Babel: A Book Log

"This much is already known: for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences." -- Jorge Luis Borges


Sunday, December 04, 2005

Gateway to the Epics?

In a comment to the previous post, Sean M. writes:

So, I know that there are probably lists out there like this, but is there any long-epic series that a beginner should start with?

I have never really read a long series of fantasy books, but I like the idea of it. I would start with the Wheel of Time series, but just about half of the people I hear mention it say bad things about it.

It's a harder question than you might think, even leaving aside the ethical issue of whether it's a good idea to encourage the reading of long epic series (which many people object to).

The fundamental problem with things like the Wheel of Time or George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire is that they're not finished. It's hard to recommend either on the grounds that they might still go completely off the rails (some would argue that Jordan went off the rails about four books ago). I wouldn't want to recommend something that's incomplete.

The other major problem with coming up with a "where to start" recommendation is that the series that were the real gateway drug for this sort of stuff mostly aren't very good. I thought David Eddings's Belgarion was great stuff when I was about twelve, but it doesn't hold up that well. And while I enjoyed it at the time, with a little perspective, you can just about hear the dice rolling in RPG-derived stuff like Raymond Feist's Riftwar and sequels. I even kind of liked Terry Brooks when I first encountered it.

(A further problem is that many of these authors just don't know when to let go, so a reasonable trilogy can be retroactively destroyed by unnecessary sequels.)

The obvious recommendation would probably be The Lord of the Rings, but it's not quite the same thing, despite some similarities. A lot of people who like Tolkien don't like other epic fantasy, while some epic fantasy readers really don't much care for Tolkien. I think this has less to do with the relative quality of the works in question than with the fact that they're not trying to do the same things, but that's a different discussion altogether.

There are also some books that are great if you've read a bunch of epic fantasy before, because they play some interesting games with the format and readers' expectations, but I don't think they'd work as an introduction to the form. Steven Erikson's Malazan books (The first of which is reviewed here) are in this category, as are Gene Wolfe's recent duology (The Knight and The Wizard).

So, I'm left with a bunch of things that sort-of work. Dave Duncan has a couple of series ("A Man of His Word" and "A Handful of Men") that are perfectly competent epic fantasy with all the usual trappings (different races, exploring most of the map, a Dark Lord who needs defeating). Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry is sort of kitchen-sink epic fantasy, with a little bit of everything thrown in. It's got some lovely writing, but it's not entirely coherent. Susan Cooper's "young adult" series The Dark is Rising gets a lot of the flavor, though it's missing some of the elements of classic epic fantasy, and it's YA.

Comments and other suggestions are, of course, welcome. What am I forgetting?

Posted at 8:44 AM | link |
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26 comments


Saturday, December 03, 2005

Another Couple of Bricks in the Wall

Look! It's not dead!

I have been reading stuff in the last two months, I just haven't been good about blogging it. I'll try to get a few posts up here this weekend, though, so I won't feel like quite so much of a slacker.

The process can be sped up a bit by combining together two books in the Giant Epic Fantasy category: the latest books from Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin. It's a natural combination in several ways, mostly because they're both gigantic, heavy books that are far enough into their respective series that they can't really be discussed in detail without spoilers. (I'm happy to discuss spoilers in the comments, if anybody still reads this and wants to comment...)

It's a little frightening to realize that Knife of Dreams is the eleventh Wheel of Time book, with at least one more to come. Worse still is the realization that the series has been going on for fifteen years...

At least this volume shows some signs of plot progress. Two extremely annoying subplots, that have dragged on for the last book and a half, finally get resolved, though the resolutions aren't entirely satisfying. There are also some signs and portents from about eight books back that finally come through. And the non-annoying subplot is brought to a fairly successful resolution, which was nice.

As someone else commented, it's the best book in the series in about ten years. Now, granted, it's still a little long on the "Go Away, Scary Robert Jordan Id!" moments-- as a general matter, the reading experience would probably be more pleasant if you just skim any section with a female POV character. But the scene where Mat returns to his troops was terrific, and almost worth the excruciating Elayne plotline. (Really, you're better off skimming those sections...)

As for A Feast for Crows, it shows some worryingly Jordan-esque trends. For one thing, it's famously late in arriving, and what's been published is actually only half of what Martin wrote-- he split the manuscript into two parallel books featuring different subsets of the cast. More worryingly, despite the length, it's a much less eventful book than its predecessor.

Now, granted, some people have written whole series that were less eventful than the previous book, and there are multi-book epics out there with fewer deaths than you'll find in one chapter of A Storm of Swords. But this book is dangerously close to being a let-down rather than a respite, if that makes sense.

Part of the problem is that the characters he's chosen to focus on for this book are among the least interesting in the gigantic cast of the series. As Kate put it, "A whole book of the Lannisters, and no Tyrion? Bleagh." The Cersei point-of-view sections (which I believe appear for the first time in this book) are also much less successful than the Jaime POV sections from the previous book. While the Jaime sections provided some real insight, and go some way toward redeeming his character, Cersei is even more awful from inside her own head. I doubt that was the intent, but that's the effect for me, and it really weakens those sections.

There are some good bits here ("Good boots are hard to find."), but the book is basically seven hundred places of characters being shuffled around to position them for later events. Which is fine as far as it goes, but I can't help thinking about the Wheel of Time series, which started doing that around Book 5, and hasn't really stopped yet. I hope Martin can avoid the same trap, but as a reader, this worries me.

Posted at 10:27 AM | link | [ hide comments ]


So, I know that there are probably lists out there like this, but is there any long-epic series that a beginner should start with?
I have never really read a long series of fantasy books, but I like the idea of it. I would start with the Wheel of Time series, but just about half of the people I hear mention it say bad things about it. Which tends to just make me more intrigued about why they are still reading them.
Anyway, any recommendations from anyone who reads this would be greatly appreciated.

Sean M, 12.04.2005, 4:00am | permalink


The Wheel of Time is certainly ready to end in my opinion. I was shocked and horrified to learn that I read the first novel when I was in grade 6. I'm now a graduate student. It has gone on long enough.

The problems in my opinion are many, chief of which are that we're getting lots of time with the boring characters who aren't doing anything important (Faile, Perrin), and very little time, for quite a few books now, with the most important character (Rand). It seems like there is still too much going on to try and finish off most of the plot lines in a single book, but I'll be happy for it to end either way!

To Sean M, they're certainly good enough to read, but the first six are significantly better than the past five, in my opinion. As for other series (I don't think there are any in particular that you should start with): David Eddings' The Elenium and The Tamuli are two of my favourites (which should be read in that order). I didn't much care for his other books though. The Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman Deathgate Cycle is fun, but if you didn't "grow up" on the old Dragonlance books you'll miss a few of the inside jokes. Worth the read anyway though. And I suppose what started me off on Fantasy books to begin with were The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, which should be required reading for everyone, regardless their book genre preferences or aversion.

PhilipJ, 12.04.2005, 3:37pm | permalink


Oh. I should also mention that I more or less stopped reading fantasy before I finished high school, so as Chad points out in his second post there, they may not hold up to the test of time. :) The Wheel of Time is the only fantasy I still actively read, at least in part because I've always enjoyed them, but also because I've put so much time into them already, I had darned well better finish it.

PhilipJ, 12.04.2005, 3:40pm | permalink


I would protest the comment about perrin, he and Elyas (or however it is spelled) are some of the conceptually coolest charachters in the book, however that bloody wife of his....and the ANGST....feels like high school again or something...

I do hope that Perrin, Elyas, and the wolves have some cool bits coming up....I would be very sad if they don't

(Woohoo, i have something to read over winter break)

a cornellian, 12.05.2005, 2:52am | permalink


No offense to Sean M., but I don't think I'd recommend Weis & Hickman to anyone older than high-school age.

Eddings is OK, although sometimes simplistic and with serious repetitive tendencies. He can be counted on for delivering some decent one-liners, though, and if you don't find his prose style grating (some apparently do), one or two of his trilogies would be a not bad place to start.

More in the next thread...

Skwid, 12.05.2005, 10:30am | permalink


For me, Jordan will never get back to the level of respect/interest I had for him after the first five books. The whole Perrin and Elayne arcs are just...gah, I don't want to talk about them. The best that can be said is their long-running story arcs were more-or-less wound up in this installment. On the other hand, I still enjoy reading about Mat (long my favorite character--he's kind of like a guilty wish fulfillment character), and he was good for definite pay-off here. Oh, and with "The Golden Crane", Jordan actually redeemed an outstanding marker that I've been waiting to see for about nine books now, and have been increasingly unsure he was ever going to get around to.

As for Feast, there's no question it's a let-down from Swords, and that it suffers from a lack of Tyrion, Dany, and (mostly) Jon. I'm not terribly worried that Martin will completely succumb to Jordanitis...for one thing, I think Martin is head-and-shoulders above Jordan in terms of writing chops. And Feast, even though it was mostly character shuffling, was still interesting...maybe that just indicates I'm too invested in this little sub-creation.
I admit, it was sometimes painful watching Cersei gloat to herself about her clever machinations which were almost uniformly breathtakingly stupid (yeah, let's re-arm the Faith, there's a good idea! Maegor the Cruel may have been cruel, but he probably wasn't stupid). She may be "clever" in some ways, but she completely lacks judgment. Jaime, on the other hand, continues his growth into very interesting character. Which probably guarantees his demise in the next couple books....
My "shiver" moment in Feast was Doran Martell's final paragraph ("Vengeance...Justice...Fire and Blood").

Trent, 12.05.2005, 11:38am | permalink


I gave up on the Jordan books after #, so no comments there. As for Feast of Crows, I think you hit it right on the head...nothing happens. Plus, not only did it skip three of my four favorites (including only Jamie, the others are as Trent mentioned Jon, Tyrion and Dany) it also had the interminable Cersei. I belive she is the first truely 1-D PoV character in the series so far. That's what I found the most frustrating, I don't think we've ever been forced to spend time in the head of somebody stupid before. And now I wonder if I remember wrong from the previous books, but didn't she used to be a competent villainess? I don't worry about Martin though, frankly I think he just made one bad decision, Cersei, and the rest was a function of the demands of plot and chopping the book in half.

Lou, 12.05.2005, 6:03pm | permalink


Trent: For me, Jordan will never get back to the level of respect/interest I had for him after the first five books. The whole Perrin and Elayne arcs are just...gah, I don't want to talk about them. The best that can be said is their long-running story arcs were more-or-less wound up in this installment. On the other hand, I still enjoy reading about Mat (long my favorite character--he's kind of like a guilty wish fulfillment character), and he was good for definite pay-off here. Oh, and with "The Golden Crane", Jordan actually redeemed an outstanding marker that I've been waiting to see for about nine books now, and have been increasingly unsure he was ever going to get around to.

I pretty much agree with all of that. The payoff to the Mat plotline (when he finally gets to show off in his area of competence) was terrific. And I did like the Golden Crane business as well, though it was passed over far too quickly.

As for Feast, there's no question it's a let-down from Swords, and that it suffers from a lack of Tyrion, Dany, and (mostly) Jon. I'm not terribly worried that Martin will completely succumb to Jordanitis...for one thing, I think Martin is head-and-shoulders above Jordan in terms of writing chops. And Feast, even though it was mostly character shuffling, was still interesting...maybe that just indicates I'm too invested in this little sub-creation.

I almost agree, except... I can hear myself saying similar things about the first couple of character-shuffling books in the Wheel of Time.

I admit, it was sometimes painful watching Cersei gloat to herself about her clever machinations which were almost uniformly breathtakingly stupid (yeah, let's re-arm the Faith, there's a good idea! Maegor the Cruel may have been cruel, but he probably wasn't stupid). She may be "clever" in some ways, but she completely lacks judgment. Jaime, on the other hand, continues his growth into very interesting character. Which probably guarantees his demise in the next couple books....

I'm pretty much with Lou on this one-- Cersei was just endlessly, one-dimensionally awful. Every single thing she did was stupid, and not even interestingly stupid.

You're probably right about Jaime, which reminds me of another thing that bugged me about this book: in the previous volume, it looked like he was going to do some interesting things with the Hound, and he just throws it all away in this one. That annoyed me.

Chad Orzel, 12.05.2005, 8:43pm | permalink


I expect he still will do some interesting things with the Hound...just, not in this book.

Trent, 12.06.2005, 2:27pm | permalink


I expect he still will do some interesting things with the Hound...just, not in this book.

That'll be a trick, what with the Hound being dead and all...

Unless I missed some clue suggesting that he's actually alive.

Chad Orzel, 12.06.2005, 2:43pm | permalink


Yeah, well, informed speculation among the Martin cognoscenti and other navel-gazers appears to be running fairly strongly to the view that the novice grave-digger on the Quiet Isle who is "bigger than Brienne" (who herself is a very large woman) is in fact Sandor Clegane. The Elder Brother claims that "the man you hunt is dead," and (in response to Brienne's "Sandor Clegane is dead") "he is at rest," but later goes on to tell his own story of how he "died" at the Trident and was reborn to a life of religious contemplation.

Long story short, I tend to side with the speculation that Sandor ain't dead yet (he's just restin'). Further flights of fancy have him, variously, entering one of the reconstituted military orders of the Faith, and/or chopping his likely-by-now zombiefied brother Gregor to bits at some point.

Trent, 12.06.2005, 7:35pm | permalink


"The whole Perrin and Elayne arcs are just...gah, I don't want to talk about them."

I could have sworn that the first three words in the first Elayne chapter in Knife of Dreams were 'Cotton Mather Zzzzzzzz...'

Tom Renbarger, 12.07.2005, 5:18pm | permalink


"Wheel of time" is great and so is "Song of ice and fire", but I'm little disappointed that nobody spoke about Roger Zellazny's "Chronicles of Amber" or Tad Williams "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" although this last one is more for children than older readers.

kasuci, 12.07.2009, 2:04pm | permalink


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